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What is the Spanish Main?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Spanish Main was the stretch of coastline in the Americas controlled by Spain in the 16th through the 18th centuries. It stretched along the northern coast of South America, across Central America along the Caribbean, and up into the lower part of North America. This region became a popular spot for pirates and privateers who wanted to take advantage of Spain's heavily laden treasure ships.

Spanish colonies in the Americas stretched across a huge swath of land at one point. This land was rich in gold, minerals, spices, and a variety of other exotic treasures. The Spanish exported treasures in large treasure ships, which often traveled in fleets for protection. By keeping an eye on a few key ports along the Spanish Main, pirates and other raiders could figure out the best time to strike.

Thanks to the fact that pirates congregated throughout the Spanish Main, the term “Spanish Main” has come to have romantic connotations, especially in societies where people have an enduring interest in pirates and the history of piracy. Sailing the Spanish Main was certainly profitable for pirates and privateers, especially those who were bold enough to go after larger fleets.

It is important to distinguish between pirates and privateers when discussing the Spanish Main. Privateers were citizens who received special permission from the monarch in the form of letters of marque which allowed them to attack foreign shipping. Many privateers were English, with monarchs using them as a political tool to wage economic war on enemies like Spain. In return for their letters of marque, privateers were obliged to turn part of their profits over to the crown, but they also enjoyed the privilege of being able to openly sail into their home ports with their prizes.

Pirates, on the other hand, operated beyond the law. Pirate crews were often quite diverse, and they were accountable only to each other. Some pirates were former privateers who realized that they could enjoy much more profit if they stopped turning their winnings over to the crown. However, pirates were also exposed to the possibility of reprisal and punishment for their crimes, and they didn't enjoy the benefits that privateers had, such as the ability to make port anywhere for repairs and supplies.

Sailing was an extremely hazardous business in the era of the Spanish colonies, and when ships were lost off the coast of the Spanish Main, it wasn't always clear if the ships had simply encountered foul weather or fallen victim to poor navigation and sunk, or if they had been taken by pirates or privateers. Despite constant raids on its treasure ships, Spain managed to profit to an extraordinary level from its colonies, in no small part thanks to ample slave labor which made extraction of natural resources very inexpensive.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By BigBloom — On Jan 04, 2011

Eventually, the capture of Cuba provided leverage for the British to purchase Florida, expanding their territory to eliminate the problem of the Spanish Main, where Spain had political and military dominance surrounding the Caribbean. Spanish misuse of the vast wealth accrued in the New World led to the eventual collapse of their empire and naval supremacy.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 03, 2011


This is a good question, and also raises the question as to where the name "Maine" came from, since they are both English derivatives. There is considerable ambiguity, but the term "main" seems to have been applied to coastal areas. The term "mainland" was used to distinguish a large coastal swath from an island, and comes eventually from an Old English word meaning "large, powerful."

By anon78223 — On Apr 17, 2010

Why is it called the Spanish Main?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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